Former Kids in the Hall member Scott Thompson birthed the gay barfly Buddy Cole over three decades ago. But the character has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past few years, popping up at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, as a special correspondent for The Colbert Report, and on Vulture’s recent list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy.
If you grew up watching The Kids in the Hall — the legendary Canadian sketch series that aired from 1988 to 1995 and shot Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, and Dave Foley to cult stardom — the trailblazing Thompson might’ve been the first openly gay performer you saw on TV. These days, he splits his time between Toronto and Los Angeles, where he lives and performs stand-up both as Buddy Cole and as himself. After years battling gastric lymphoma, the 58-year-old is cancer-free and feeling creatively renewed.
At Joe’s Pub on Sunday and Tuesday, the Canadian comic will perform his one-man show Après Le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues, composed of material he’s amassed since The Kids in the Hall went off the air. And on Monday, the Stonewall Inn hosts the 20th-anniversary re-release of the fictional memoir Buddy Babylon: The Autobiography of Buddy Cole, by Thompson and his writing partner Paul Bellini. Thompson spoke to the Voice about the perils of performing while openly gay, the joys of stirring things up, and finding satisfaction in the work and not the results.
Buddy Cole is this guy who’s been there, done that, seen everything there is to see. But of course, you were pretty young when you created the character.
I hadn’t done anything! I was practically a virgin! I mean literally, a virgin! In every sense of the word. I was pretending to be this world-weary homosexual at the fin de siècle. It’s ludicrous!
Do you feel like you relate to the character more now?
Yes, I think I’m better at being him now, actually.
I wonder, if you were starting out today, if you would have performed some of this material just as yourself, rather than in character.
If I was young today, I don’t think there’s any question I would have become a stand-up comedian. I think that’s exactly where I would have gone. I’ve been judged by people who say, “Oh, that’s such a stereotype, you’re such a Stepin Fetchit.” But people don’t really have any idea what things were like for gay people. Buddy Cole was something that I had to create — he was my mouthpiece. You couldn’t really stand up there and be yourself. Not in those days, particularly the ’80s and ’90s, with AIDS just decimating the gay community. Gay men were in a terrible, terrible state.
I know you’ve been performing as Buddy Cole for a long time, and lately it seems like he’s been popping up all over the place. But there was a long stretch when Buddy went quiet.
I had a one-man show that was supposed to open in New York on September 19, 2001. It was a show I’d been working on for a year, and it was about, ironically, terrorism. It was supposed to open blocks away from Ground Zero, and the first monologue was about Buddy Cole’s relationship with Osama bin Laden, if you can imagine. I just became toxic. They canceled my show and I went back home, and I tried to re-do it in Toronto a few months later, but it just was destroyed by the critics.
Jesus. How did you pull yourself out of that funk?
I went into a depression, and it lasted quite a long time. Then around 2005, 2006, I had a revelation that I got my joy out of the work rather than the results. That was the beginning of me coming back to myself, in terms of figuring out who I was. I was furious about how I wasn’t given the same opportunities as other people because I was openly gay, and that just made me crazy. After that, things started getting better. The first show I wrote after The Lowest Show on Earth, which is the show that went down in New York, was called Catastrophe, and that was about that show, about what happened, and about my relationship with my brother, who had committed suicide. It’s a very dark show! I would have continued doing it, but then I got cancer. My life circumstances had changed so drastically — it just felt like, another room has opened up, and I can’t really pretend that this is the thing I’m most concerned about any longer.
You’ve never been afraid of making people uncomfortable. Do you find you get pushback today from a different segment of the audience than you might have back in the 1980s and ’90s?
There will always be pushback, but it’s always coming from different directions. People are uncomfortable, and I’m, like, well, that’s where I live. I enjoy stirring things up. I think it’s important. That’s what a comedian should do.
What do people push back on these days?
Anything to do with religion or race or gender or sexual orientation, people get very uptight about. But right now the thing that people are most uptight about is Me Too. That is an issue that men are not supposed to discuss. But I’m very lucky, because I’m a gay man, so I’m allowed.
I actually think it would be great if more men were talking about this.
What I wish is that men and women would talk honestly with each other. Because the way that men talk with each other and the way that women talk with each other — they’re different languages.
You’ve been performing a lot of stand-up in L.A. these days. What has that been like?
I basically say yes to everything. I’m at a club three times a week at least. It’s amazing, I’m thrilled by it. Last night I did this show, I didn’t get home till 12:30, 1 o’clock. I’m like, what the fuck am I doing? Everybody my age is getting ready to retire! Retire? It makes me ill to think about it. I’m with all these people that are 20 years younger than me, at least. I feel revitalized right now.
And you’re re-releasing your Buddy Cole book, too.
It’s the 20th anniversary of Buddy Babylon, which I’m extremely excited about because when the book came out 20 years ago, no one even reviewed it. I think it got one Canadian review. And they trashed it. The Canadian literary establishment, as I’ve discovered, hates comedy. Hates it. Oh, they’re so uptight! I also think homophobia was so much worse then, a male critic would have to pretend he didn’t know what I was talking about just to make sure that his heterosexual credentials were in order. I really believe that. When people would tell me that I was their favorite on Kids in the Hall, if it was a straight male, they’d whisper it like it was a dark secret. Don’t tell anyone, but I like you as much as Bruce. Everyone was trying to prove they weren’t a fag.
Well, what could be worse?
It’s still the worst thing you can call a man. I do think male homosexuality is different than female homosexuality, and it is seen as much worse. A male falls from grace, and a female, when she sleeps with other women — this is my theory — in some ways, she moves up in power. Because she’s going after the same thing that straight males go after, and she’s taking on masculine traits, to be politically incorrect.
It’s also just something straight men like to think about, and the entertainment industry basically turns on what straight, white men find appealing.
People say, “Oh, the young kids, they’re all gender-fluid.” I go, “No, the girls are.” But boys aren’t. Boys aren’t kissing each other to turn on girls!
You’ve talked about queer comics being “castrated” by not talking about sex more explicitly. Do you still find that’s the case, or are queer comics talking a bit more openly now?
Oh, absolutely, it’s changed. They’re still not going to the next level. There’s still never been an openly gay male comic that’s a star. Not one.
I’m racking my brain right now….
Everyone does that, they rack their brain thinking I’m exaggerating and then no one can come up with a name. There’s James Adomian and Guy Branum and Andrew Johnston and Ted Morris and Darcy Michael — none of them. And I think that’s really sad.
People often talk about you being “ahead of your time.” It’s nice to get recognition, but maybe it would have been nicer at the time.
When you’re young, you can say it, when you’re young. It would have been nice if it had happened when I was doing it. It would have made things a little easier. One of the things I’ve learned in life is, there’s no money in being first. There’s really only — I wouldn’t even say glory, because the glory comes after you’re dead. When you’re first through the door, you just have to accept that the person who’s third is going to get all the attention.
Après Le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues
425 Lafayette Street
April 1 and 3, 9:30 p.m.
The Stonewall Inn
53 Christopher Street
April 2, 7 p.m.